MANILA, Philippines – When his pastor touched him, he knew it was wrong.
About 23 years ago, Rommel Garcia was 19 or 20 when he developed a close relationship with youth pastor Leo Arnaiz. Struggling with his sexuality at that time, Garcia thought it was safe to share his predicament with Arnaiz, as he is known to be everyone's "big brother" in Baguio City.
In an interview with Rappler, Garcia said he would visit Arnaiz after basketball training or have lunch with him. Eventually, Arnaiz invited Garcia to a sleepover at this place.
"We slept on the same bed and then the next morning there was a gift with a message: 'Sorry about last night," Garcia told Rappler. "I don't know what happened last night."
When Arnaiz invited Garcia for another sleepover, that's when the younger man realized what the apology note was for.
"When I started falling asleep, that's when I felt his hand touching me. I took his hand and stopped it. I thought this has got to stop because it really feels wrong," Garcia recalled.
"I figured if I could let him finish off, then that's got to be it. I jerked him off and then he came. That was it and we slept," he added.
Arnaiz, who is also a basketball and soccer coach, has been accused by some of his former high school basketball players of sexual abuse. (READ: Baguio high school basketball coach accused of sexual harassment)
Fil-Am Josiah Weihman was the first to speak out about his experience with Arnaiz in a public Facebook post in January. Weihman said he was only 14 when he was abused. He is 28 now.
Garcia said that when he read Weihman's post, he realized that Arnaiz "did not change" over the years. "His style has never changed. How he lured those guys is the same thing he lured me. It was almost the same thing as my story," he said.
Rappler repeatedly tried to reach Arnaiz for comment but he has not responded as of this publication.
Over two decades ago, Garcia knew what happened to him was not right so he decided to talk to their senior pastor about it. After talking to the senior pastor, Arnaiz called and asked him to visit his house.
"I was hoping he would apologize but he said, 'What were you talking about?' I told him, 'What you did was wrong but I don't hate you.'" Garcia said Arnaiz kept asking him what happened during the night the younger man was complaining about.
"'What did I do to you?' he asked me. I told him, 'You touched me,' 'Touch you where?' I kept insisting that he touched me but he kept saying he doesn't know what I was talking about," Garcia said.
He said Arnaiz claimed he was just "jealous" because Arnaiz was hanging out with other guys. Arnaiz offered to buy him a gift from Korea, Garcia recalled.
"Nothing was resolved. That was the first and last time I talked to him about this. This was in 1994. I thought, 'Did I make this up in my mind?'" (READ: The effects of sexual harassment on children)
Garcia said he told a few people in his church about what happened between him and Arnaiz but he was told that "he only wanted attention."
"Who's going to believe me? I'm just a youth in the church. He's a popular youth pastor. So I left the church," he said. (READ: Netizens say sexual abuse is 'not a laughing matter')
Decades later, Garcia said there is still no closure. "It doesn't go away. It never goes away. There's no closure."
He believes that Arnaiz's confidence in committing the act suggests that it was not the pastor's first time to do it in that setting.
Ultimately, Garcia invited other victims to come out and talk to Weihman and lawyer groups in the Philippines.
But crying for justice against the perpetrator can only go so far, given the limitations in the law.
The law prescribes only a certain period of time within which an offender may be prosecuted for a crime, lawyer Amparita Sta Maria, director of the Ateneo Graduate Legal Studies Institute, told Rappler in an interview.
Sexual harassment cases can be punished under the provisions of the Revised Penal Code on Acts of Lasciviousness, and under Republic Act No. 7877 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995.
Article 336 of the Revised Penal Code states that Acts of Lasciviousness can be punished by imprisonment of 6 months up to 6 years. Correctional penalty such as this has a prescriptive period of 10 years, meaning the victim must file the case within 10 years since the act happened.
In the case of Weihman and Garcia, the incident happened over the prescriptive period of 10 years. Sta Maria said that the allowed period for them to file a case has already lapsed.
Sta Maria said that recent victims can also file a case against Arnaiz under the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act. However, the prescriptive period is much shorter. Any legal action must be done within 3 years since the act was committed, she said.
Sta Maria, who is also the director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center's Urduja Women's desk, acknowledged that part of the reasons why the victims took so long to share what happened to them could be due to gender stereotypes.
"It's difficult to come out and say you have been violated. Usually, that kind of violation is 'suffered' by women so when it happens to men, they carry that burden of stereotype that they are not supposed to complain or whine about it," she said.
She added that stereotypes should be broken and that the victims should have enough courage to stand up for themselves. (READ: UN Women urges people to report sexual harassment cases)
"Have enough courage to say, 'Yes, we have been victims and this is not something attributable to us.' It is the person who did it to them and in any way is not their fault," Sta Maria said. (READ: The many faces of sexual harassment in PH)
"They are not part of the blame. They are part of the solution," she added. – Rappler.com